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December 7, 2014

Two astute commentaries about California's emerging Prop 47 issues

0Two local California paper have two distinct commentaries about Proposition 47 and its aftermath. Both are worth reading, and here are links and excerpts from the start and end of each piece:

Opinion by Alexandra Natapoff, headlined "Prop 47 empties prisons but opens a can of worms":

California is doubling down on decriminalization. Three weeks ago, the passage of Prop. 47 converted a half-dozen felonies to misdemeanors. In 2011, marijuana possession was reclassified from a misdemeanor to an infraction without jail time. If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep a decade ago at the height of California’s prison boom and woke up this morning, he’d quickly recognize this as a scramble to undo decades of harsh and expensive policy.

The state is not alone — we are seeing a seismic shift in how the United States handles punishment, especially with respect to misdemeanor decriminalization. Marijuana is the most famous example, but many states are eliminating jail time for other minor offenses, such as driving violations and public order crimes, and replacing them with so-called “nonjailable misdemeanors,” “nonarrestable” or “fine-only” offenses, and “civil infractions.”

There are a lot of great things about decriminalization. But it has a surprisingly punitive and racially charged dark side, and it doesn’t always work the way people think it does. The “non-jailable misdemeanor” — popular in many states — is still a crime that triggers arrest, probation and fines, criminal records and other collateral consequences. Even the gold standard of decriminalization — the “non-arrestable” civil infraction — can derail a defendant’s employment, education and immigration status, while the failure to pay noncriminal fines can lead to contempt citations and incarceration. And while decriminalization sounds egalitarian — after all, it’s a promise not to lock up people who would usually get locked up — sometimes it might actually make things worse for the poor and people of color....

It’s often hard to tell whether criminal justice reform is real progress or a shell game. Is California actually reducing incarceration, or is it quietly shifting prisoners around or repackaging punishment so as to avoid appointing lawyers for poor people? Decriminalization offers great promise, but it needs to be carefully monitored to make sure it lives up to its tantalizing name.

Editorial by Los Angeles Daily News, headlined "Prop. 47 sentencing changes are working out just as feared":

The saga of Proposition 47 and its troublesome implications is a crime story in which everybody left fingerprints except the real villains. The villains are California legislators, who kept their hands off the crucial challenge of criminal sentencing reform despite the need to address the state’s big problems with prison overcrowding and overly harsh policies that favor punishment over rehabilitation.

With lawmakers unwilling or unable to touch the issue, advocates picked it up and handed over the complex topic of sentencing reform to the public in the form of last month’s ballot initiative. Voters were asked to say yes or no to reducing felony sentences to misdemeanor penalties for many drug-possession and other criminal convictions.

The well-intended but dangerously flawed Prop. 47 passed easily with 59 percent of the vote. Now state and local legal authorities, including those in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, are having to confront the consequences....

In Humboldt County, the release of 35 percent of the county jail population has been accompanied by a reported rise in burglaries, thefts and vandalism. If that becomes a state trend, so much for Prop. 47 supporters’ title for the measure: The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act.

It’s possible Prop. 47’s troubles can be worked out and it will achieve its goals. When FiveThirtyEight.com’s data journalists analyzed outcomes in states that have undertaken similar sentencing reforms, they found more positive than negative results at reducing prison populations and incarceration costs.

But the results in California will bear watching. Gov. Jerry Brown, who had planned to issue prison-reform proposals in January, other state officials and legislators must be ready and willing to act to make this work. Of course, if lawmakers had been willing to tackle the issue earlier, we wouldn’t be in this situation now.

December 7, 2014 at 10:25 PM | Permalink

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